How Redesigning The Abrasive Alarms Of Hospital Soundscapes Can Save Lives

By: Guest Author | Posted on: Apr 12, 2017

This article was originally published on by CHRISTINA COUCH.  View the original article by clicking herehospital alarms, hospital noises, cascade training center Between 2011 and 2013, ambient electronic musician Yoko K. Sen spent time in a local hospital receiving treatment. She didn’t like what she heard. The incessant stream of jarring noises—slamming doors, beeping medical equipment, blaring televisions in neighboring rooms—wasn’t exactly conducive to a restful recovery. When she learned that some believe hearing to be the last sense we lose before death, Sen began wondering: Is this really what terminal patients should hear during their last moments on Earth?

Now, Sen is on a mission to use sound design to make hospitals calmer, more soothing places to stay. Conducting extensive research on the needs of health care providers and alarm fatigue—a condition that occurs when people become desensitized after being exposed to too many alerts—Sen is currently prototyping sound environments that help patients and providers cut through the clamor, potentially improving both patient health and medical care in the process.


“The incredible thing we’re learning, and the very beginning of the dawn of human-centered design in health care, is how little attention we’ve paid to most things that aren’t clinical,” says Nick Dawson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Sibley Innovation Hub, a group that’s working with Sen and other partners to use design to improve patient experiences at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. “It’s not just that [medical sound design] has been done poorly, it’s that it’s never been done.”

Hospital cacophony is so constant, doctors and patients stop noticing it’s there. Just a few days in a hospital means hearing thousands of alarms. Research presented at the Acoustical Society of America’s 2016 spring meeting found that the average hospital racks up 135 alarms per patient per day, about one every 11 minutes. There are blood pressure and cardiac monitors that beep in tandem with patients’ heartbeats, ventilators that sound when patients cough or shift in bed, and IV machines that trip every time medication is delivered, just to name a few.

But none of these are critical alarms, and neither are many of the other alerts patients hear on a constant basis. The Joint Commission, a nonprofit health care accreditation and certification organization, estimates that 85% to 99% of hospital alarms don’t require any clinical intervention, leaving patients nervous that there’s something wrong and health care providers scrambling to sort false alarms from real ones.

“One of the things that we know from the literature is if a clinician believes an alarm to be valid 90% of the time, they’ll answer it 90% of the time,” says JoAnne Phillips, co-chair of the Alarm Safety Committee at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The reverse is true, too. When clinicians know that false alarms are common, they’re substantially less likely to answer, raising the risk of missing a major medical emergency. The Joint Commission found that between 2010 and June of 2015, 138 people died in events related to alarm system failures. Even when life or death isn’t on the line, alarms still take a toll. For patients, hospital noise has been linked to sleep difficulties, higher stress levels, increased blood pressure, and longer healing times and hospital stays.

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